Opera: Bleak opera house

SAMUEL BARBER: VANESSA LYRIC STUDIO HAMMERSMITH

HOW IRONIC that an opera about waiting and hoping should take 40 years to arrive in the UK. Typical. Samuel Barber's Vanessa enjoyed a triumphant US premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1958. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for him. The libretto has its sillinesses, but the central allegory - compromise or be damned - stands firm and the score, full of aching regret and promise unfulfilled, is largely fine and occasionally special, notable above all for the frisson of Barber's wonderfully ambiguous harmonies and heady orchestrations.

At Hammersmith, times are hard. The Other Theatre Company (under severe financial constraints) can manage only a piano. Which begs the question: can one really bill this as the UK premiere? One can applaud the enterprise, for sure. Companies like this can perform a valuable service in refreshing parts of the repertoire that more prosperous organisations can't, or won't, reach. The piano (bravely played by Anthony Kraus) is fine if you know, and can hear, the orchestrations in your subconscious. For those who don't, and can't, the complexion of the piece is altered. For better or worse, it becomes a bleaker and more consumptive essay. The director Loveday Ingram has effectively capitalised on that. The Lyric Studio, swathed in black, is made to feel suitably claustrophobic, windows and mirrors of the mind covered. Gaunt double doors convey the scale of Vanessa's estate. A scattering of snow suggests the long winters of discontent, inside as well as out. It's a house of sorrow and hopelessness. The exquisite prelude to the final scene sounds like subversive Chopin.

Subversive Barber, though, I had not bargained for. Anyone who has heard the famous Leontyne Price recording of Vanessa's Act 1 aria might well have been wondering if Meryl Richardson was singing the same music. She looked strikingly svelte and neurotic, and behaved accordingly, but this shallow, glassy, astringent voice was distressingly at odds with Barber's effulgent lyricism, curdling even the glorious quintet in the last scene. Louis Mott's "Erika", warmly, compassionately sung, provided some compensation, and Evan Bowers, as Anatol, was a tenor of some substance. So a taster, no more, of Barber's Vanessa. Ignore the programme synopsis which, despite correction, still gets the relationship between the characters wrong. That's not shoestring, that's shoddy.

Edward Seckerson

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